WashU Expert: DOJ report on St. Louis County Family Court raises new concerns about discrimination

The U.S. Department of Justice released July 31 a report critical of the St. Louis County Family Court, alleging racial bias and unfair treatment of black youth, among other accusations.


Mae Quinn, JD, LLM, professor of law and director of the Juvenile Law and Justice Clinic at Washington University in St. Louis, is hopeful the report will lead to fundamental change and reform.

Quinn is a nationally recognized scholar in the areas of criminal and juvenile justice. Her most recent article, “In Loco Juvenile Justice: Minors in Munis, Cash from Kids, and Adolescent Pro Se Advocacy – Ferguson and Beyond,” focuses on the overlap between municipal and juvenile court practices in Missouri.

Her prior groundbreaking work, “The Other Missouri Model: Systemic Juvenile Injustice in the Show Me State,” actually lays out many of the same constitutional and other concerns the Justice Department discovered during its investigation.

Below, Quinn shares her thoughts on the DOJ investigation.

“I am heartened by the report issued today by the United States Department of Justice, which sheds further light on many of the legal concerns and constitutional issues my clinic students and I have encountered and been challenging in local juvenile court systems over the last six years.

“While we have worked with many caring and committed judges, prosecutors, and probation staff during this time — we have also repeatedly been shocked by practices that work to undermine basic rights of due process, representation and zealous advocacy. More than this, the very structure of the system runs counter to basic constitutional separation of powers norms — where everyone but the child and her lawyer (when one is present) — is part of the same team. In such an environment and culture, it is very hard to meaningfully represent children — largely poor youth of color — who are already at risk in this community.

“In addition, the funding priorities of our state have rendered our public defender system largely incapable of zealously defending the large number of cases coming through our juvenile courts each year. As the NJDC Missouri Juvenile Justice Assessment aptly noted in 2013, justice by the public defender system must be rationed in this state. And, unfortunately, kids — some of the most vulnerable persons in our courts — frequently feel these restrictions the most. Depriving the state public defender system of basic resources is no longer acceptable. And I stand with them in their calls for greater support.

“I am hopeful that this document — like other recent findings and reports that have been issued by DOJ, the Ferguson Commission’s working groups, and others — will serve as a further platform for change in the region. And, as before, the Juvenile Law and Justice Clinic at Washington University School of Law stands at the ready — willing and able to represent kids in our courts and work collaboratively to rethink our juvenile justice system in the days ahead. At this point I believe there is plenty of good will and ability to bring about meaningful reform. I look forward to St. Louis County — particularly as it gets ready to open the doors on its new multi-million dollar youth justice center — serving as a model of best practices for youth justice across the country.”

For media interviews, Quinn is best reached by email at mquinn@wustl.edu.